Rebecca Forgasz was the Director & CEO of the Jewish Museum of Australia for nearly ten years. This extract of her farewell lecture, Ten tantalising tales: stories from our collection, is part of a series published here to mark the High Holidays. In each instalment Rebecca reflects on the personal, collective and cultural significance of objects and the collections that house them.

Ten Tantalising Tales #6 Bernard Picart engravings

These illustrations by Bernard Picart are dotted all around our permanent exhibitions. They always seemed to me to be just nice little illustrations of Jewish rituals, which added a bit of context to the ritual objects on display. I recently found out, however, that these come from a very significant document from the 18th century.
Bernard Picart (1673-1733) was one of the most prolific and talented engravers of his age. Jean Frederic Bernard (1683-1744) was a French language bookseller and publisher of Huguenot background based in Amsterdam. Together they prepared thousands of pages and hundreds of engravings that sought to capture the ritual and ceremonial life of all the known religions of the world.
They were interested in what religions had in common rather than how they differed. Their book in which they collated all the engravings argued for religious toleration by showing all religions, even those of the “idolatrous peoples”, as even-handedly as possible. In particular, at a time of widespread antisemitism, it offered one of the most sympathetic portraits then available of European Jewry.
The book in its various editions and translations sold 4,000 copies. It set the study of comparative religion in motion, and the images became the standard way of representing many of the world’s religions well into the 19th century.
I have to thank the extraordinarily knowledgable Shelley Cohney for alerting me to the significance of these illustrations that are peppered throughout our exhibitions. I think they had particular resonance for me because of the work I’ve done over the past few years establishing Multicultural Museums Victoria – an alliance of five museums: the Chinese Museum, Hellenic Museum, Islamic Museum, Jewish Museum and Museo Italiano. These museums all share, at their core, a common mission: to engage their own communities, but also to educate the broader public about their cultures. Collectively, by sharing not only the uniqueness of our cultures, but presenting them as part of the fabric of our multicultural society, we hope to promote a deeper appreciation of and respect for cultural diversity and difference – exactly the same intention that Picart and Bernard had almost 300 years ago!

Bernard Picart
Tallit and Tefillin
1721, Paris
Paper, ink 520 x 420mm
Donated by Mr & Mrs L Kushinsky
Jewish Museum of Australia Collection 2188

 

 

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Rebecca Forgasz
Rebecca Forgasz is an Associate Professor (Practice) at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation, Monash University, where she is responsible for leading the Centre’s community engagement activities. She recently departed from her role as Director & CEO of the Jewish Museum of Australia, which she held for almost a decade.

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